Usually Predictable, But Sometimes Surprising – Resist the Temptation to Skip Employment Reference Checks

Kathbern Management - Toronto Recruitment Agency - A compass with positive and negative in the positions of north and south

The purpose of reference and background checks is to confirm information which the candidate has already provided and to ensure that no other aspect of their professional or personal background would jeopardize their candidacy.

These checks are not part of the evaluation process to decide between competing candidates since your own screening and interviewing process is meant to accomplish that. Asking candidates to provide their references prior to receiving an offer will likely be met with resistance, since most candidates guard their referees from being asked to provide a reference too often. They will not want to use up this favour if they are not in the final stage of being offered the job.

Reference checks should involve at least two former supervisors, a peer/colleague and a subordinate (if the position involves staff management). This provides a 360° view of the candidate’s personality and performance.

The reference report based on the conversations with the referees should capture as many verbatim remarks as possible. The reference questions should encourage open ended responses rather than “yes” / “no” answers and should explore both general areas such as work habits, notable strengths and areas for improvement, interpersonal skills with subordinates, peers and superiors, as well as specific skill and personality requirements for the position under consideration.

Background checks confirm the educational and professional qualifications that have been claimed by the candidate. A criminal background check will reveal the existence of any criminal record for which a pardon has not been granted.

A Cautionary Tale
A few years ago, we were working with a regular client of ours to fill a VP Operations role at a manufacturing plant with about 300 people. The new person would have most of those people reporting to them up through their chain of command and it was a time when a lot of changes were underway – fast growth, a drive for efficiency and a need to bring the team along in adopting a new “can do” attitude.

After several weeks of research we came across an individual who appeared to be a perfect fit. He was currently employed in a somewhat more junior, but similar role at a name brand organization in a related industry. He had been employed for reasonable time periods at other well-known companies in the same industry, had the right attitude and appeared to have excellent leadership skills. We arranged an interview with our client, and as expected, it went very well and we were soon in the process of preparing an offer. As we have recommended elsewhere in this blog, once the offer was prepared, we telephoned the candidate to let them know that the offer would soon arrive, and to give them the verbal highlights of the offer. Of course, as we always recommend, the offer was conditional on satisfactory references being received.

During this telephone call, we were surprised when the candidate, upon hearing that the offer would be conditional on references, began to balk. We asked for the names of at least two former immediate supervisors, a peer and a past subordinate. We also advised that we would need a signed consent in order to conduct a criminal background check. The candidate made a vague, halfhearted commitment to provide the reference names and surprisingly, suggested that he would need to contact his lawyer before giving consent to the criminal background check. We then forwarded the full offer for his consideration and awaited the arrival of the reference information and signed consent.

He returned the accepted offer shortly and within two days he submitted one reference from a former subordinate. Asked a day later about the remainder of the requested references and the consent for the criminal background check, we were told that this would not be forthcoming. In the meantime, our client informed us that the candidate had contacted him directly to see if he could have the reference check condition waived without actually satisfying it. Our client wisely referred the candidate back to us.

Two days later, we informed the candidate that the offer was being withdrawn due to his failure to provide the requested references and consent. We did some cursory internet searching to see if there was any incriminating information relating to his name (which was rather unusual) but we found nothing. We continued our research, eventually developing other solid candidates, one of whom was eventually hired to fill this position.

While we never discovered the reason for the candidate’s reluctance to cooperate with us to complete the reference check phase, we are very sure that we helped our client in avoiding a problem by being vigilant in insisting that reference checks be completed.

In Summary
Have a standard set of general reference check questions which can be supplemented with job-specific questions for each position in your organization. Use a background check agency such as Kroll to assist with educational/professional credentials and the RCMP data bank (Cost – $50 -100 depending the extent of the check requested).


A single senior level hiring event which fails will, on average, cost a year of progress, recruitment and severance costs and have a negative impact on the organization’s goodwill as perceived by other employees, customers, shareholders and outside agencies.

Larry Smith founded the management search firm Kathbern Management in 2004 after a multi-decade career in senior roles with organizations in the office equipment, communications technology and investment banking industries. Kathbern Management focuses on working with owners and senior managers to “get the right people on the bus”.

While most of Kathbern’s projects have been in North America, others have been in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, West Africa and the UK.

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